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For 24 years, Peniana Arguelles has worked as a special education assistant in Los Angeles public schools. At Menlo Avenue Elementary School in South Los Angeles she feeds children who can’t hold a fork, changes diapers, helps students choose colors for their paintings, doles out hugs when they cry.
Arguelles said she considers herself blessed and “loves her job and her students.” She is part of a corps of specialized workers who do not have teaching credentials but serve as a teacher’s right hand when it comes to the needs of students, including the most vulnerable children with special learning needs and children with disabilities.
And as a member of the Service Employees International Union Local 99 — which represents some 30,000 custodians, food workers, gardeners, bus drivers and others — Arguellas is prepared to strike for three days as part of a push for a 30% pay increase. Joining Local 99 in the strike will be members of the teachers union, a walkout that would shut down schools, beginning Tuesday.
Arguellas and other teacher assistants said their walkout is about respect. They are among the lowest paid workers in the district. Aides who worked with disabled students start at around $19 and can earn up to about $24 an hour. But they said their workload has become unsustainable.
Arguellas is particularly peeved that the Los Angeles Unified School District is asking her to do more work outside of her assigned classroom duties — helping additional students with assignments and leading calming exercises with them.
“It’s putting on two hats for the same salary,” she said. “It’s not fair.”
Kyle Sanchez, 35, works at Rosa Parks Learning Center in North Hills with 18 special education students in a fourth-and-fifth-grade split classroom. He said the class is “way too big” for just him and results in “too many off-the-clock hours.” He wants higher pay, but also a reduction in class size and help.
“We’ve reached the point where something needs to be done,” Sanchez said. “We need more staff, more money and some respect.”
These teacher assistants said the public does not understand the work their members do to keep schools functioning.
Francisco Magallanes, a 23-year special education assistant at Cudahy’s Elizabeth Learning Center, said there are “many tasks” for which special education assistants never get paid for or acknowledged.”
That includes riding the bus to school with special education students beginning at 7 a.m. and spending an additional 15 to 20 minutes at the end of schooldays walking students to the front of the campus.
“There’s double duty going on that nobody credits you with,” Magallanes said.
On Wednesday afternoon, Magallanes was joined by his Elizabeth Learning Center colleague, Sergio Castro, 35, a special education teacher.
The “proud LAUSD product” and Roosevelt High School alumnus said extra work for special education teachers and aides is taken for granted.
Castro created an on-campus photo club specifically for special needs students at Elizabeth Learning Center that he said established “opportunities for kids to express themselves through photography.”
“It seems like ‘going above and beyond’ is just now expected,” Castro said. “We love our kids and our school but at the end of the day, we need a living wage. We love L.A., but we also have to be able to live here.”
Denia Serrano, 33, and Juanita Zavaleta, 44, work at Glassell Park’s Irving Steam Magnet School.
Serrano has served as a special education assistant in the district for eight years. This year her job is to team up with a teacher to “discretely” visit general education classrooms that include special education students.
Serrano said the goal is to “assist every student as need be,” while also not embarrassing or singling them out.
It’s a job she “takes great pride in,” yet one in which she feels overlooked and underappreciated.
“I just can’t believe we’ve got to this point where we may strike because the district doesn’t want to pay us or respect us,” Serrano said. “It makes you feel like they don’t know you exist.”
Zavaleta is a Braillist who transcribes English and works in a classroom with children who are visually impaired, helping new students acclimate to the school and function with minimal prompting or navigation.
“When I look at this struggle…it’s easy to say it’s about money, but it’s ultimately about respect,” Zavaleta said. “The superintendent makes $440,000 and we have people making $25,000. The fact the district is fine with this is sad.”